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It is often said and has been said today, particularly by strong remainers, that we cannot possibly know why each of the 17.4 million or so people voted for Brexit. That is obvious, because there are any number of reasons why people voted leave, but we can be confident that few of them did so in the hope that we would end up with a deal like the one we are debating today. In a legalistic sense, the withdrawal agreement removes us from the EU, but for all intents and purposes its effect is to bind us to the rules of the EU while removing our ability to influence those rules.
I will not focus specifically on the transition period today, although it is certainly true that the EU is given vast, possibly unprecedented, powers over the UK during that time, and that is uncomfortable, but it could well be necessary. The issue is with what happens afterwards. It is also possible that, during the transition period, we will be able to agree a comprehensive free trade agreement with the EU and, as a consequence, we may be able to avoid the backstop, but that seems incredibly unlikely. The backstop effectively keeps us in the customs union and it subjects us to EU rules, with no UK say at all in framing those rules.
We have heard today from numerous speakers that the backstop would divide Northern Ireland from the rest of the UK and would prevent us from striking meaningful new free trade agreements with other countries. The Attorney General gave a magnificent performance in Parliament a couple of days ago, in which he described the backstop in three words: undesirable, unattractive and unsatisfactory.
But the biggest concern about the backstop is that we cannot leave it without the permission of the EU, which is not disputed. The question, then, is what incentive there is for the EU to negotiate in good faith. What would stop the backstop becoming a trap, by becoming the long-term basis for the UK-EU relationship? Given that any EU country could veto our departure from the backstop, the likelihood of being stuck in the backstop is surely very high indeed. We would have to wait until each and every EU country had its fill before agreeing finally to let us out. Yes, we could leave the backstop, as we have heard again and again, if we could prove that the EU is not acting in good faith, but what on earth does that even mean in practical terms?
The withdrawal agreement has united leavers and remainers in an extraordinary manner. I shared a platform a few weeks ago with Sir Vince Cable, my constituency neighbour, and it was the first time in two years that we have agreed on something relating to the EU.
We have known for some time that this deal has virtually no chance of making it through Parliament. We know that it jeopardises the Conservative party’s relationship with the DUP, which is critical to keeping the Government going. So it is odd that the Government continue so vehemently to flog what is so obviously a dead horse.
I do not agree that the choice is between this deal, no deal and no Brexit, and I do not agree with those people who gleefully hold up this deal as proof somehow that Brexit is impossible or a fantasy. All it really proves is that those in charge of conducting the negotiations have not succeeded. Mostly they have not succeeded because they are miserable about the referendum result and have treated the exercise as disaster management. They set out to look at all the risks of Brexit—of course there are risks in such a transition—but they have failed to look for the opportunities as well.
We are one of the biggest economies in the world. We are geographically well placed to continue playing a big role in world affairs. Our language is the global language. Our judiciary is trusted. Despite all the rubbish that is happening at the moment, our democracy remains the envy of the world. Our legal system provides more certainty and clarity than pretty much anywhere else in the world. And people want to live, work and raise families here.
Had we never joined the EU in the first place, does anyone honestly believe that it would not be biting off our hand to agree a comprehensive free trade agreement today? Of course it would. There is still time to pursue the option that Brussels was always expecting, and that makes the most sense for the world’s fifth largest economy: the foundation of a comprehensive free trade agreement based on mutual respect and mutual recognition.
There are many in this House who share my views about the deal but whose answer is to press for a second referendum, which would be madness. There was a consensus at the time of the referendum that the outcome would be honoured. Solemn promises from the Prime Minister were echoed on both sides of the House.
We all remember some people brashly saying that it did not matter how people voted because the EU would never let us out anyway. I remember those people being dismissed as if they were lunatics, but that did happen in Denmark, France and the Netherlands, and I think it happened twice in Ireland. I was one of the people who dismissed those concerns as conspiracy theories. How extraordinary and how depressing that there is now a real chance those people could have been right all along.
I understand that some people remain mortified by the outcome of the vote, and of course this place is filled with extremely clever people who could potentially find a clever way of stopping Brexit one way or another, but it would demonstrate a remarkable lack of wisdom. A failure to honour the referendum would surely cause an irreparable breakdown in the relationship between the people and the authorities. It would usher in a new era of extreme politics.
There is no reason why the UK should be immune to the trends that are plaguing almost every other country in Europe: in France, where Le Pen leads in the polls; in Germany, where the Alternative für Deutschland, founded in only 2013, is now the second biggest party; in Austria, where the Freedom party is part of the Government; and in Italy, Spain, Sweden, Greece and so on.
If the gut fear that so many people have, the feeling that the political elite simply cannot be trusted, is utterly and completely confirmed, where will those mainstream voters go? It is madness. It could possibly, potentially, perhaps be justified if something truly seismic had happened, but it has not. Millions of pounds have been poured into a campaign to undermine the referendum and make people fear every aspect of Brexit, but the polls have barely moved; they are still within the margin of error. I believe the Government are going to lose this vote next week, and I am afraid to say that I hope they lose it. Then, either this Prime Minister or, if she will not do it, another Prime Minister must take this deal back to the EU and change it.